As part of their desire to once again conduct launches into space from US soil, NASA recently awarded commercial space contracts worth $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX. But beyond restoring indigenous spaceflight capability, NASA’s long-term aim is clearly getting a manned mission to Mars by 2030. And in assigning the necessary money to the companies and visionaries willing to help make it happen, they just might succeed.
As per the agreement, Boeing will receive $4.2 billion to finance the completion of the CST-100 spacecraft, and for up to six launches. Meanwhile, SpaceX is receiving $2.6 billion for its manned Dragon V2 capsule, and for up to six launches. NASA expressed excitement its collaboration with both companies, as it frees the agency up for bigger projects — such the development of its own Space Launch System (SLS).
One person who is sure to be excited about all this is Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, CEO, and private space visionary. With this big infusion of cash, he has apparently decided that it’s time to bring his plans for Mars forward. Ever since 2007, Musk has indicated a desire to see his company mount a manned mission to Mars, and now he may finally have the resources and clout to make it happen.
These plans include flying astronauts to Mars by 2026, almost a decade before NASA thinks it will. By late 2012, he even spoke about building a Mars Colony with a population in the tens of thousands, most likely established sometime during the 2020’s. As of this past year, he has also revealed details about a Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), an interplanetary taxi that would be capable of ferrying 100 people at a time to the surface.
And then in February of this year, SpaceX began developing the MCT’s engines. Known as the Raptor, this new breed of large engine reportedly has six times the thrust of the Merlin engines that power the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. Now that the company has the financial resources to dream big, perhaps the MCT might move from the development stage to prototype creation.
And there is certainly no shortage of desire when it comes to sending people to the Red Planet. Together with Mars Society president Robert Zubrin, and Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp, crowdfunded organizations are also on board for a manned mission. The case for settling it, which Musk himself endorses, is a good one – namely, that planting the seed of humanity on other worlds is the best way to ensure its survival.
And as Musk has stated many times now, a manned mission Mars is the reason there is a SpaceX. Back in 2001, while perusing NASA’s website, he was perturbed to find that the space agency had nothing in the way of plans for a mission to Mars. And the best time to go is probably in about 15 or 20 years, since Mars will be at its closes to Earth by then – some 58 million kilometers (36 million miles).
During this window of opportunity, the travel time between Earth and Mars will be measured in terms of months rather than years. This makes it the opportune time to send the first wave of manned spacecraft, be they two-way missions involving research crews, or one-way missions involving permanent settlers. Surprisingly, there’s no shortage of people willing to volunteer for the latter.
When Mars One posted its signup list for their proposed mission (which is slated for 2025), they quickly drew over 200,000 applicants. And this was in spite of the fact that the most pertinent details, like how they are going to get them there, remained unresolved. Inspiration Mars, which seeks to send a couple on a round trip to Mars by 2021, is similarly receiving plenty of interest despite that they are still years away from figuring out all the angles.
In short, there is no shortage of people or companies eager to send a crewed spaceship to Mars, and federal agencies aren’t the only ones with the resources to dream big anymore. And it seems that the technology is keeping pace with interest and providing the means. With the necessary funding now secured, at least for the time being, it looks like the dream may finally be within our grasp.
Though it has yet to become a reality, it looks like the first Martians will actually come from Earth.
Men are from Mars, women are… also from Mars? That is the controversial theory that was proposed yesterday at the annual Goldschmidt Conference of geochemists being held in Florence, Italy. The proposal was made by Professor Steven Benner of the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida and is the result of new evidence uncovered by his research team.
The theory that life on Earth originated on Mars has been argued before, but has remained contentious amongst the scientific community. However, Benner claims that new evidence supports the conclusion that the Red Planet really is our ancestral home by demonstrating that the elements for life here could only form on Mars, and came here via a Martian meteorite.
According to the theory, rocks violently flung up from the Red Planet’s surface during mammoth collisions with asteroids or comets then traveled millions of kilometers across interplanetary space to Earth. Once they reached Earth’s atmosphere. they melted, heated and exploded violently before the remnants crashed into the solid or liquid surface.
All that would be needed is for a few of those space born rocks to contain microbes from Mars surface. These building blocks of life would have to survive the journey through space and the impact on Earth to make this happen. But research into Exogenesis – the possibility that life was transplanted on Earth by meteorites – has already shown that this is possible.
What’s more, NASA’s Curiosity Rover was expressly created to search for the the environmental conditions that would support life. Less than half a year into its mission it accomplished just that, locating proof of the existence of water and a habitable zone. Between it and the Opportunity Rover, the search to determine if life still exists – in the form of organic molecules – continues and is expected to yield results very soon.
But of course, Benner was quick to point out that there is a difference between habitability (i.e. where can life live) and origins (where might life have originated). The presence organic molecules alone is not enough when it comes to the mystery of life’s creation, and when it comes to making the great leap between having the necessarily elements and the existence of living organisms, scientists remain hung up on two paradoxes.
These are known as the tar paradox and the water paradox, respectively. The former paradox addresses how life as we know it comes down to the presence of organic molecules, which are produced by the chemistry of carbon and its compounds. However, the presence of these compounds does not ensure the creation of life, and laboratory experiments to combine and heat them has only ever produced tar.
As he puts it, the origin of life involves “deserts” and oxidized forms of the elements Boron (B) and Molybdenum (Mo) – namely borate and molybdate. Essentially, these elements are the difference between the formation of tar and RNA, the very building block of life:
Certain elements seem able to control the propensity of organic materials to turn into tar, particularly boron and molybdenum, so we believe that minerals containing both were fundamental to life first starting. Analysis of a Martian meteorite recently showed that there was boron on Mars; we now believe that the oxidized form of molybdenum was there too.
The second paradox relates to water, which is believed to be intrinsic for life to flourish, but can be also hazardous to its formation. According to modern research, RNA forms prebiotically, requiring mineral species like borate to capture organic elements before they devolve into tar and molybdate to arrange the material to give it ribose – organic sugars, also intrinsic to life.
This can only occur in deserts, he claims, because water is detrimental to RNA and inhibits the formation of borates and molybdates. And from a geological standpoint, there was simply too much water covering the early Earth’s surface to allow for this creation process to take place:
[W]ater is corrosive to RNA, which scientists believe was the first genetic molecule to appear. Although there was water on Mars, it covered much smaller areas than on early Earth. Various geologists will not let us have these [borates and molybdates] on early Earth, but they will let us have them on Mars. So IF you believe what the geologists are telling you about the structure of early Earth, AND you think that you need our chemistry to get RNA, AND IF you think that life began with RNA, THEN you place life’s origins on Mars,
All of this has served to throw the previously-held theory – that life came to Earth through water, minerals and organics being transported by comets – into disarray. Based on this new theory, comets are a bad candidate for organic life since they lack the hot, dry conditions for borate and molybdate formation.
If the new theory is to be believed, Mars boasted the proper conditions to create the elements for life, while Earth possessed the water to help it flourish. If such a partnership is needed for the creation of organic life, then scientists will need to reevaluate the likelihood of finding it elsewhere in the universe. Between the existence of water and hot dry environments, life would seem to require more specialized conditions than previously though.
But of course, the debate on whether Earthlings are really Martians will continue as scientific research progresses and definitive proof is discovered and accepted by the majority of the scientific community. In the meantime, Curiosity is expected to rendezvous with Mount Sharp sometime next spring or summer, where it will determine if organic molecules and elements like Boron and Molybdenum exist there.
And on Nov. 18th, NASA will launch its next mission to Mars – the MAVEN orbiter – which will begin studying the upper Martian atmosphere for the first time, determining its previous composition, and where all the water went and when was it lost. So we can expect plenty more news to come to us from our neighboring Red Planet. Wait and see!
If there’s one thing that’s become an annoying cliche in commercial science fiction movies, and even some novels, it’s the idea of a super-advanced alien race that come to Earth, proceeds to kick ass, but then gets beaten by a ragtag bunch of superheroes by the most implausible means. You know what I’m talking about, the big evil monsters from another planet who seem to have armies, navies and nuclear arsenals beat, but then succumb to germs, basic hacking, and inferior weaponry.
Having grown up with a lot of bad science fiction, I could name a few titles from my childhood which, looking back, kind of insulted my intelligence. But as I’ve gotten older, the list has grown and expanded. And I really thought it was time I did a list that presents all of the bad stories, movies and television arcs that I’ve witnessed over the years, the ones that extra-terrestrial would definitely get a kick out of if ever they saw them. Hopefully, they wouldn’t conclude we humans actually think like this, and hence would be that much easier to conquer!
And here they are, in order of awfulness. The list of incompetent alien invaders!
1. Battlefield Earth: I start with this movie for obvious reasons. As far as logic and plot development were concerned, this movie could not have been more insulting to aliens! Not only was their own ineptitude galactic in proportions, but it flew in the face of everything we were told during the first half of the movie (or quarter of the book). Yes, L. Ron Hubbard (the inventor of Scientology) isn’t exactly known for being the most rational of human beings, but even he was out to lunch on this one!
For starters, it is established early on that the Psychlos – an alien civilization of clawed Rastafarians – have conquered Earth by the year 3000. But in the course of the story, we learn through the main character that it was extremely easy for them to do it. Using their superior technology, Earth’s armies, navies and air forces fell to the invasion after a mere 9 minutes! That’s quite the ass-whooping!
And yet, a group of tribal kinsmen are able to not only defeat the occupying Psychlos, but destroy their entire homeworld in the course of an uprising. How, you might ask? Well, as it turns out, Terl, the governor of Earth – played by director and Hubbard acolyte John Travolta – facilitated it all by giving Johnny Goodboy Tyler (the protagonist of the story) all the lucrative info on their race so he could become a foreman for a private gold mining operation, but in turn used it to train a resistance.
In the course of so doing, Tyler was able to trick Terl into accepting gold from Fort Knox, where he used 1000-year old simulators to train his ragtag misfits in how to use equally old Harriers, missiles, and even a nuke, which they then teleportedto the Psychlo home planet in the midst of their rebellion. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that the Psychlos atmosphere ignites when it comes into contact with radiation? Yeah, that’s kind of important, because it resulted in the full-scale destruction of their home world!
Ignoring for a fact that the physics of this makes absolutely no sense, Hubbard’s tale basically asserts that by relying on the same technology that couldn’t last ten minutes against a bunch of alien invaders in the first place, a bunch of hill people did what ever army on Earth could not and killed off a far more advanced species. How did these Psychlos conquer Earth in the first place? They are not only breathe air that’s the equivalent of dry tinder of gasoline, they’re dumber than dirt!
2. Independence Day: Here we have another instance where audiences were presented with an alien menace that appeared unassailable in the first act of the movie, but then proved to be total pushovers. As the first Roland Emmerich disaster flick to grace the silver screen in America, this movie made a ton of money and set the arc for Emmerich’s career. Fun and silly, it sucked as far as realism and suspension of disbelief were concerned. For me, what endures about this movie is how fun it is to make fun of!
Basically, the aliens come to Earth in a massive mothership that begins deploying smaller motherships across the globe. Using our own satellites to sync up, they begin a countdown to Armageddon and start blowing up every major city on the planet. The only person who seems to notice the countdown ahead if time is a lone cable repair man, and not the NSA, CIA, MI6 or any other covert spy agency on the planet!
All counter-attacks fail, as it seems the alien ships have shields – these big green walls that protect them from our missiles. Nukes are even useless against them. All hope seems lost until, contained within Area 51, this same cable man comes up with an idea… He’s going to download a virus to the alien mothership using his Macbook and set off a nuke inside it. With the help of a fighter pilot who seems oddly and suddenly qualified to fly a captured alien ship, they fly into space, make it aboard the mothership, and begin their hack job.
And while the alien’s shields are down, what remains of Earth’s air forces mount a counter-attack that goes off quite well. It seems that without their shields, the alien fighters are a bunch of total wimps! And the smaller motherships, all you got to do is find a alcoholic, traumatized crop duster to fly a plane up their main gun shaft and the whole thing will blow up! Oh, and the hacker team, they make it out before the nuke goes off and somehow crashland without dying. Hurray for xenocide!
So basically, our species was on the verge of being exterminated, only to be saved by a cable man, a NASA reject, and a drunken crop duster with PTSD. Brent Spiner was right, it WAS just a matter of getting around their technology! And how easy was that? Yeah, they got interstellar spaceships, laser beams and shields, but the bastards can’t even erect a firewall to stop a single hacker? And speaking of those laser beams, turns out all you got to do is stick your finger in the barrel and the whole ship will blow up!
3. Battle: Los Angeles Here we have another instance where aliens attack, manage to do untold amounts of damage, but then seem to succumb when a small band of heroes come together and put their minds to the task of beating them. And in this case, the aliens didn’t even really have an Achilles heel. They just seemed to become beatable once the Marines figured out their physiology, technology and basic tactics, which was surprisingly easy…
It’s almost summer in LA, and a grizzled veteran who’s traumatized over the recent loss of his platoon is about to quit the service. But of course, hostile aliens land off the coast and throw a wrench in his retirement plans! And instead, he is deployed to the city to defend against the first wave of the assault, and is quickly trapped with what remains of his platoon behind the enemy’s lines.
There, they begin to figure out the enemy. This consists of first performing a recreational autopsy on one to find out how to kill it. Turns out all you have to do is shoot them “to the right of the heart”. So, in the chest then? No wonder all the other soldiers couldn’t kill them! They were aiming for the groin! Fleeing with some civilians in tow, they also systematically discover all their other weaknesses…
This includes the fact that the alien airdrones are drawn to their radio transmissions and that all their drones are controlled by some central command module. After realizing they are on their own because the Air Force aint coming, they divert to find the module and then destroy it. All the alien drones are deactivated, the Marines are rescued, and a counter-attack is now underway to clear the last of them. But of course, the Marines refuse to sit this one out and selflessly volunteer to go back in…
So the lesson here is, when entire armies fail and fall back, its a small group of heroes that will save the day. Not bad, but how is it a bunch of grunts in the field are able to figure out how an enemy arsenal works while the higher ups basically have their thumbs up their asses the whole time? Funny how that always seems to be the case!
And sure, I get that the leader of these heroes would be a scarred man seeking redemption, but are we to believe that a man who lost his entire platoon to insurgents would have no trouble leading a handful of people to victory over a far more advanced alien species? Something just doesn’t add up here…
4. Signs: I remember the days when M. Night Shyamalan was considered a big deal, and not some dude past his prime who made a string of critically-panned movies. Yes, in addition to being hellbent on starring in his own films and using material that seemed marginal (comic book heroes, monsters, aliens and ghosts), he also seemed to have a real hard on for stories that were full of holes!
And this movie was no exception, adding to an already rich tradition of scary aliens who don’t seem to have a clue when it comes to conquering planet Earth. The story starts out clear enough, with “signs” of an impending invasion by alien beings. And of course, the heroes here are a single family made up of people strangely qualified to defeat them – a priest who’s lost his faith after losing his wife, a psychic daughter, an asthmatic son, and former baseball player who swings at everything.
When the aliens show up, it turns out his dying wife’s words were a prophecy on how to beat back in the invasion. First, hit them in the head with a bat, they hate that! Then, rely on your sons asthma to prevent him from inhaling their toxic vapors. And finally, realize your daughter’s desire to keep glasses of water around the house are a defensive mechanism, since water is toxic to them.
Really? So these things can travel light years to our planet for the sake of terrorizing and killing us, but are vulnerable to a blows in the head from a blunt object and a liquid that covers 70% of our planet and permeates the air. What kind of invaders are these? Are these the same ones who were defeated in the Simpsons by a “board with a nail?”
Also, did they not notice ahead of time that the most basic element, next to the air itself, was fatal to them? What is it with alien invaders not doing their due diligence? How is it that we here on Earth are able to notice lakes of sulfuric acid on Venus, despite having never landed there, but aliens can’t notice the equivalent on a planet they are actively invading? Kang, Kodos… get off our planet!
5. Battleship: Next up, we have the movie that dared to ask the age old question: “what do you get if you cross Transformers with Independence Day?” The answer being, the same old story of unlikely heroes beating an alien menace, but with a twist! This one is set at sea. And if that wasn’t enough, it also stars Rihanna, who proved once again that there are some singers who should stick to what they’re good at and avoid crossing over!
And much like in Battle: LA, we once again have aliens landing in the sea and wreaking havoc on nearby city – this time in Honolulu. After trapping and destroying the US and Japanese naval ships in the vicinity, the alien ships take control of the communications array on the nearby island of Oahu. A single vessel, captained by a LT after his brother (the Captain) is killed, manages to survive and continues the fight…
This includes the US naval ship taking out two of the alien ships and capturing an alien to learn that they are vulnerable to sunlight. On land, a veteran and quadruple amputee in recovery also figures out what the aliens are doing with the array. Apparently, they are using it to summon more of their ships to Earth. So on land and at sea, we have unlikely heroes who begin unraveling the aliens’ plans.
Using the aliens rather pedestrian weakness to their advantage, the US naval ships manage to blind the last of the smaller alien ships with sunlight and destroy it. However, it too is sunk, but they manages to survive and gets back to base to commandeer the USS Missouri, the last remaining US Battleship in existence. Bringing her out of retirement, they use her big guns to take out the alien ships shields, allowing the Air Force to finish her off.
Following this, the Lieutenant is promoted and given a ship of his own to command. Him and Rihanna also arrange to get married. Hurray! Planet Earth is saved and everybody’s getting laid! And once again, it seems that if you’re a reluctant hero, or you’ve got vengeance on your mind, you can beat the odds and overcome a vastly superior alien foe. Never mind that a small fleet was useless against this enemy, or that your vessel is dangerously out of date even by Earth standards!
6. The Borg (Star Trek: TNG): Here we have a truly chilling and frightening alien menace that started out as a credible threat, but quickly degenerated into a nuisance that was eventually beaten through some unlikely twists! I can still remember when the Borg were first presented in the second and third season of TNG, just how tough and scary they seemed! How they went from this from the clumsy, easily-fooled menace led by a “Queen” towards the end is a mystery…
As Guinan said during their introductory episode, the Borg are a collective “made up of organic and artificial life which has been developing for thousands of centuries.” In addition to being virtually indestructible and entirely collectivized, they are hellbent on assimilating all known lifeforms and technology they come across. This makes them an inevitable threat, one which Q believes they are unprepared to face.
Hence, he arranges for a little face-to-face between them and the Enterprise, and it doesn’t go too well. In addition to finding that their weapons are virtually ineffective against a Borg ship, they also learn that these ships are capable of healing from battle damage, are faster and far more coordinated than their own; and most importantly, that they are crewed by a relentless enemy. They narrowly survive, and only because of Q’s intervention.
Their second confrontation happens shortly thereafter, when a Borg Cube is dispatched to Federation space to begin assimilating them. After an initial encounter with the vessel, Picard is captured and assimilated. The crew learns that he is now part of the Borg and that his knowledge has been absorbed. As the Borg vessel begins advancing on Earth, the Federation loses 39 ships in an attempt to stop it.
In the end, they manage to stop it by recapturing the Captain, tapping into the Borg neural net, and commanding them to go to sleep. The Borg ship self-destructs, realizing their collective has been intruded and they are vulnerable. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that humanity survives its first engagement with the Borg and lives to fight another day. Scary stuff, and doesn’t bode too well for the future!
Immediately thereafter, the Borg ceases to become a serious threat. Not appearing again until the end of Season 5, at which point Roddenberry had died, the Enterprise discovers a single stranded Borg and rescue him, plotting to return him to the collective carrying a virus. However, they soon realize the lone Borg, who’ve they’ve humanized by naming him “Hugh”, is no longer a Borg per se, and cannot commit to the plan. Instead, they learn that Hugh’s individuality have spread throughout the collective, causing chaos.
Thereafter, the Borg made no real appearance in the series until the spinoff series Voyager, where they make numerous appearances before being vanquished. First, they are shown to be fighting a losing war against beings from a parallel dimension where space is fluid and technology is organic in nature. The Voyager crew assists the collective against this common threat, and gains 7 of 9 as a crewmember.
In subsequent episodes and seasons, Voyager wages a one-ship war with the collective as they flee back to Federation space. They manage to outwit the Borg Queen (weren’t they supposed to be a collective?) time after time, stealing a trans warp coil from her, saving a group of resistance fighters from the collective’s grasp, and coordinating their efforts with a future Janeway to not only make it home, but crash the entire collective with a virus.
From invincible enemy that spoke with one voice, to a bunch of dumb drones led by a megalomaniacal queen that made deals and was easily tricked, the Borg was a truly awesome concept that degenerated into a sort “Evil the Cat” that became all-too-human. Ironic, and quite disappointing really. Much like many elements of the show, this was one of Roddenberry’s babies that seemed to suffer in his successor’s hands.
7. The Day of the Triffids: Although based on a novel that ended quite differently, the film adaptation of this novel has gone down in history as a case of aliens that seemed so menacing, but proved to be very dumb. Written by John Wyndham, the author that brought us The Chrysalids, the story considers the possibility of an alien invasion that doesn’t involve tripods, motherships or little green men armed with ray guns.
No, in the end, Windham’s invasion was much more subtle, patient, and far more effective. It begins when the triffids, a race of seemingly intelligent, aggressive plants that begin popping up all over the world. Initially thought to be the result of bioengineering within the USSR (a possible commentary on Lysenkoism), the venomous plants are soon revealed to be the first wave in an alien invasion.
After being blinded by contact with one of the plants, the main character awakens in the hospital to find it deserted. He begins to walk through the streets of London, apparently surrounded by other blind people. He soon comes upon a group of people who still have their sight and are planning on establishing a colony to repopulate the human race.
In time, it is made clear that the triffids are causing the environment to change, effectively terraforming Earth to become more like the alien environment they are used to. They continue to advance and eventually surround the small home the main characters make for themselves. But at the same time, the main characters learns that a colony has been formed on the Isle of Wight, which is removed from the infestation, where people are attempting to continue the fight.
In creating this story, Wydnham acknowledged a great debt to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; though in this novel, the aliens are not foiled. However, in the film adaptation of the novel, the triffids are eventually foiled by a very likely source: salt water! Yes, it seems that an invasive species chose to attack a planet where the majority of the surface is covered by something entirely poisonous to them.
Little wonder then why Shyamalan chose water as his aliens’ weakness. He was ripping off a classic movie! Too bad it was an unfaithful adaptation of the original novel. He could have avoided making one of several bad movies!
8. The War of the Worlds: We come to it at last, the original story that inspired an entire slew of classic alien invasion tales. Written in 1895-97, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds not only introduced the world to the concept of a “Martian invasion”, it set the tone for all subsequent generations of paranoia and fear regarding extra-terrestrial life. This was not an intended consequences of his work, mind you, just a side-effect of what was arguably a brilliant novel.
Told from a first-person point of view, the story follows a philosophically-inclined author who witnesses the invasion firsthand. It all begins shortly after an observatory notes the appearance of several “explosions’ on the surface of Mars. Shortly thereafter, the narrator is one of many people to notice the arrival of a meteor which turns out to be a large cylinder. When the cylinder opens, disgorging tripods that begin incinerating everything with heat rays.
More cylinders begin falling all over Southern England, laying waste to military units and communities. After meeting up with an artilleryman, the narrator finds out that he has become cut off from his wife, and reroutes to try and find her. People begin to evacuate London, and British forces are able to bring down some of the tripods, but eventually, all organized resistance ceases.
In their wake, the Martian begin to unleash a species known as Red Weed, a native martian plant that begins altering the Earth’s ecology. Of the narrator’s companions, a curate and the artilleryman, the former comes to see the invasion as a herald of the Apocalypse, while the latter begins to advocate that humanity rebuild civilization underground. He eventually leaves both behind and returns to London, where he finds the aliens dead due to infectious disease.
At once brilliant and original, Wells story has undergone extensive scrutiny over the years. It’s plot and thematic makeup have led many critics to wonder what its central message was, whether it was meant as a sort of cautionary tale, an historical allusion, or an indictment on British colonial policy. As part of the larger trend of invasion literature, there were also many who thought that the aliens represented an actual enemy (i.e. Germany), and the point was merely to stoke fears about the possibility of an actual world war.
Summary: In the end, it seems pretty obvious that when it comes to alien invasion stories and movies, everyone is picking at the crumbs from Wells’ table. As one of the first stories involving war between humanity and extra-terrestrials, it was also the first to introduce the world to the concept of a seemingly unassailable alien menace that was brought down because of an Achilles heel.
And without fail, it now seems like just about every purveyor of science fiction has followed in his footsteps. Whether it’s Verhoeven’s disaster porn, classic B-movie adaptations, new generations of speculative sci-fi novels, or mainstream TV shows, the concept of a fearsome, super-advanced species that initially has the edge on humanity, only to be foiled by superior… whatever, is destined to be all the rage!
And much like Wells War, one can’t help but wonder about the psychology and deeper sociological implications of that. Do such ideas remain popular with us as part an enduring xenophobic tendency, or are they part of some deeper destructive impulse, where we just love to see civilization as we know reduced to ashes? In some respects, you might say this a healthy sublimation of that desire, where we allow others to do what we secretly desire, right before we pay them back in full!
I’m thinking this is getting a little too intellectual given the subject matter I started with. This was supposed to about clueless aliens and how these stories and film parody them. Once again, I sincerely hope that if there are aliens out there who are able to listen in on our radio, television and movie transmissions, that they take all of this entertainment with a massive grain of salt.
I think I speak for all of humanity when I say we don’t need no invasions anytime soon! Come back after we’ve developed our own death rays!
More news from the Red Planet! At a press conference held just yesterday, members of the Mars Science Laboratory announced that Curiosity discovered some interesting gravel patterns in the Gale Crater which would seem to indicate that water once flowed there. What more, according to William Dietrich (Curiosity’s co-investigator from the University of California, Berkeley) the water would have been flowing for some time.
“Too many things that point away from a single burst event,” he said in the press statement. “I’m comfortable to argue that it is beyond the 1,000 year timescales, even though this is very early on in our findings.”
Specifically, what Curiosity found was outcroppings of layered rock that are the result of multiple deposits of gravel, which the science team claims could not have been laid by any other naturally occurring source, such as wind. What’s more, the sizes and shapes of stones offer clues to the speed and distance of a long-ago stream’s flow. Although initially classifying this as a “surprise”, the team inevitably claimed that they weren’t too surprised by the finding.
The location of the site lies between the north rim of the Gale Crater and the base of Aeolis Mons (aka. Mount Sharp), a mountain inside the crater. To the north of the crater, a channel named Peace Vallis feeds into the alluvial fan, where the abundance of channels between the rim and conglomerate suggests the presence of flowing water over a long period of time.
For some time, scientists have speculated about the existence of ancient rivers on Mars, based solely on observations from afar. In fact, the “canals of Mars”, as they were often known, have remained a source of inspiration for astronomers and fired the public imagination. The notion that there might be life on the Red Planet inevitably led some to suggest that there was such a thing as a Martian race that was responsible for their creation.
This, in turn, has led to generations of science fiction and storytelling, with images of little Martian men invading Earth in their terrible war machines (a la War of the Worlds) or as benevolent psychic begins who succumbed to disease and the onset of human colonization (i.e. The Martian Chronicles). Naturally, these fantastic notions died when it became known that the Martian surface is all but lifeless. However, evidence that Mars was once capable of supporting life remains; and thanks to Curiosity, continues to grow.
Stay tuned for more news from Curiosity! As of yesterday, it moved on from the Garland Crater and began its longest journey yet towards the Glenelg area, where it will begin taking soil samples and performing test drills. The goal here will be to find samples of preserved organic carbon, another step in the long mission to determine whether Mars really did support life in the past. Exciting times!
I recently came across this story on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, a science show dealing with all things science and tech related. Somehow, with the recent passing of Bradbury, Canada’s 145th birthday, and my obsession with colonization, this story just spoke to me on so many levels. For those who’ve been monitoring the news or NASA’s regular updates on their website, the Curiosity rover is on its way to Mars and is schedules to land on August 5th.This Martian rover is slated to roam the surface for years, looking for signs of life. And it just so happens that this vehicle carries a special Canadian instrument.
Curiosity’s position and distance to Mars as of July 4th, 2012 (NASA)
The Curiosity spacecraft, artists rendition (NASA)
Once it arrives, the Curiosity, the largest rover ever sent to Mars, will execute the most complicated powered landing, in the roughest area, that a robotic lander has ever attempted on Mars. The landing site is the Gale Crater, 155 kilometres across, with a mountain rising 5 km from its centre. Curiosity is aiming for a pinpoint landing on the crater floor, right at the base of the mountain. Once there, it will begin by exploring the lower slopes of the mountain (named Mt. Sharp after a NASA geologist) and spend the next two years looking for signs of ancient water activity and possible Martian life.
The Gale Crater, the landing point indicated with a black oval (NASA)
Here’s where the Canadian technology comes in. In the course of conducting its analyses of the surface, one of the instruments that it will use is a an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer. This device was built by a team of scientists at the University of Guelph, Ontario, with Dr.Ralf Gellert acting as the principle investigator. With the help of this an other instruments and on-board mini-laboratory, the Curiosity will analyze soil samples to look for chemical signatures of past or present life.
As many people know, this elusive search has been ongoing, ever since astronomers first looked at Mars through telescopes and thought they saw artificial canals. Those hopes were quickly dashed when more detailed analyses indicated that the planet was sterile and the atmosphere too thin to support life as we know it. But once rovers began to be sent and soil samples examined, the hope of finding life once again became a matter of hard science. Though there might not be little green men dwelling on the surface, or in underground facilities, life of a sort does appear to exist within the Red Planet’s oxidized soil.
On top of all that, this information will prove useful in helping scientists to determine whether or not Mars could be terraformed to suit human needs. If that should prove to be the case, then Mars may very well become our home away from home in the not too distant future. Bradbury certainly thought as much, and look how popular he became 😉
The landing, and results it produces over the next two years, are sure to be exciting! In the meantime, check out this computer-simulation of Curiosity’s landing, as produced by NASA:
Yesterday, one of the greatest sci-fi minds of the 20th center, Ray Bradbury, died at the age of 91 after a lengthy illness. His publisher, HarperCollins, were apparently the ones to break the news to the world. Best known for his seminal dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury quickly joined the ranks of authors like Orwell, Huxley, Clarke, and Asimov, in that he was a speculative author who’s predictions rapidly came true.
Amongst such things were the emergence of ATMs, wall-sized televisions, interactive entertainment, and live broadcasts of fugitive car chases. In addition to Fahrenheit 451, he also penned the Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Something Wicked this Way Comes, and over 600 other works of fiction, articles and essays. As such, his influence and legacy are truly immeasurable.
So, in honor of this sci-fi great, whom I waited a very long time to read, I shall delve into his best known works and try to explain exactly why they were so enduring and influential. Let’s start with the book that earned him his reputation in the first place:
Fahrenheit 451 (1953): This dystopian piece of speculative fiction takes place in the late 20th century, when American culture has degenerated into a form of brutal escapism. Nuclear war looms on the horizon, books have been banned, and for the majority of people, cocooning in their homes in front of their wall-sized monitors seems like the perfect distraction.
The story takes place from the point of view of a Fireman named Guy Montag, who’s job consists of located offenders and burning their books. This is the role of firemen in the future, who instead of fighting fires are responsible for starting them. Montag is unhappy with his life and suffering from a deep sense of disquiet.
Until one night when a young woman named Clarisse shakes up his worldview. Whereas most people in Montag’s world seemed numbed and dead, she is vital and alive, and questions just about everything. Shortly thereafter, she dies in a tragic accident, which shakes Montag’s world up even more.
He too begins questioning the rules, he steals books from jobs he is meant to pull, and begins reading them. Realizing he is now in violation of the law, he seeks out other offenders for answers. This brings him into contact with Faber, a former English professor that Montag knows can help. In time, Faber is convinced to bring him into this confidence and reveals that he is part of a circle that is dedicated to the preservation of written knowledge.
Eventually, Montag is found out and must flee. His boss, it seems, has known for quite for some time what he is up to but extended him some courtesy because he knows what he’s going through. More enlightened than the average person, Montag’s boss explains to him why books have been banned and why they must destroy them. Rather than the result of forced censorship, the process was entirely voluntary. People chose mindless entertainment, distraction and fast cars over reading, reflection and learning.
Montag’s escape from his house and the police becomes the subject of the evening news. He manages to elude the authorities and meets up with the reading circle down by the river. Interestingly enough, he flees the city just in time to witness being destroyed from a nuclear attack. It seems the build-up to Armageddon has finally ended and nuclear war has come. Montag leaves with the group, who’s mission now has become one of preserving civilization as well as literature.
What was enduringly brilliant about this book was not so much the predictions about technology or the emergence of book banning, but the reasons for it. Capturing the zeitgeist of his age, Bradbury essentially felt that a shocked and fearful society would seek escape by the most convenient means available to them. And whereas most dystopian novels involve ignorance and illiteracy being forced by a brutal regime, Bradbury believed that the process would be entirely voluntary. In this respect, he captured the same essence as Huxley, another dystopian critic who believed man’s appetite for distraction would be it’s undoing.
The Martian Chronicles (1950): Though written before Fahrenheit 451, the MC gained notoriety more slowly, but eventually became recognized as one of the great works of science fiction. A collection of loosely based stories rather than a single novel, the book follows the future history of colonization on Mars, dealing with all kinds of speculative, existential and scientific questions.
The overall structure of the book comes in three parts, punctuated by two catastrophes. The first is the near-extinction of the Martians, while the second is the parallel near-extinction of the human race. In first part of the book takes place at the end of the 20th century and details mankind’s efforts to reach Mars, and the various ways in which the Martian natives keep them from returning. However, towards the end (in the story “—And the Moon be Still as Bright”) it is revealed the majority of the Martians have died as a result of a plague brought from Earth.
This opens Act II, taking place in the early 21st century, where humans begin colonizing the Red Planet. On occasion, they have the opportunity to make contact with the surviving Martians, but mainly are concerned with building a second Earth. However, many settlers begin to pack up and leave as looming nuclear war on Earth causes them to want to get back and be with their families. The outbreak of this war signals the end of Act II and the opening of the third act.
In the third and final act of the book, all contact has been lost with Earth when the nuclear war takes place. As the war passes, those humans who have survived on Mars have began building a distinct civilization and having children who have only known life on the Red Planet, effectively becoming Martian themselves. This prospect allows the book to return to its beginning, as it is suggested that new waves of colonists will soon be coming and conflicts are likely to emerge as a result.
This book was not only brilliant in that it addressed a great deal of scientific and existential questions that are sure to come when actual colonization begins (if ever). It also managed to capture a sense of timeless truth and lessons which come from real history, or the “Age of Discovery” as its known. These included the destruction of native inhabitants, the push-pull factors which lead to colonization, severance from the homeland, and eventual adaptation as new people begin to embrace the new environment as their home.
Much like KSR’s Mars Series, this book should be required reading if ever any Ares missions get underway!
The Illustrated Man (1951): Much like the Martian Chronicles, this book is a collection of short stories linked by a common theme. Through its exploration of humankind, the recurring theme is one of conflict between cold mechanics and technology and the basic nature of human beings. Many of these stories have been adapted into film over the years and been used in schools as educational tools. Some examples include:
“The Veldt” – in this story, we see a family who’s children have become terribly attached to the houses’ high tech nursery. Like a holodeck from Star Trek, the children use this to create virtual environments – in this case, the predatory environment of the African veldt. When the parents threaten to take it away, the children lock them inside and they are apparently consumed by the lions. thought it is not outright said, it is implied that the children have reprogrammed the unit to become real and have been “feeding” people to it for some time.
“The Other Foot” – in this exercise in turnabout, we learn that Mars has been colonized solely by people of African descent. When they learn that a rocket is coming from Earth with white travelers, they decide to institute a system of racial segregation similar to that of the Jim Crow Laws of the American South, in retaliation for the wrongs of history. However, when the rocket lands the traveler tells them that most of the Earth has been destroyed in a nuclear war and the people realize that discrimination is harmful in all its forms. They rescind their discriminatory laws and welcome the new crew as equals.
“The Man” – A group of space explorers land on a planet to find the population living in a healthy state of bliss. Upon investigation, they discover that an enigmatic visitor came to them, who they eventually conclude was Jesus (or some other religious persona since He was never named). Some decide to spend the rest of their days rejoicing with the natives, while another decides to continue on in his spaceship in the hopes of catching up with this person. While he spends the rest of his days in hot pursuit, always one step behind and never quite catching up to him, the other learn that “he” is still on the planet with them. Hello metaphor!
“The Exiles” – taking a page (no pun!) from Fahrenheit 451, this story revolves around the concept of burning books and the immeasurable nature of knowledge being lost forever. It begins with stating that numerous works of literature have been banned and burned on Earth. The fictional characters of these books are portrayed as real-life entities who live in a refuge on Mars. These characters are vulnerable however since once all the books on a character are destroyed, that character vanishes permanently. When the group of characters learn that some people are coming for them, they stage a counterattack, but are foiled by the astronauts who burn the last remaining books from Earth, unknowingly annihilating the entire colony.
“Marionettes, Inc.” – A man attempts to escape his marriage by replacing himself with a robot to fool his wife into thinking he hasn’t left and tells a friend about it. The man comes back and tells the robot to go back into the box, and the robot disobeys him saying he has fallen in love with the wife. The robot then proceeds to put the man in the box and replaces him for real. Sound familiar?
“The Illustrated Man” – The namesake of the book, this story involves an overweight carnival worker is given a second chance as a Tattooed Man, and visits a strange woman who applies skin illustrations over his entire body. She covers two special areas, claiming they will show the future. When the first is revealed, it’s an illustration of the man strangling his wife. Shortly after this comes to pass, the carnival workers run the man down, beat him, and look at the second area, which shows an illustration of the same beating they are doing. Can you say self-fulfilling prophecy?
Most of these stories would probably sound familiar in one way or anther, but that’s because they’ve been adapted, copied and referenced by countless pop culture sources. I myself recall watching “The Veldt” in school and being chilled by its eerie and dystopian tone. “Marionettes Inc.” has been adapted into comedy format numerous times, and the theme of prophecy and fulfillment in “The Illustrated Man” has inspired countless stories, not the least of which are The Butterfly Effect and perhaps even PKD’s Minority Report.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962): A somewhat off-beat work for Bradbury, who’s works consist mainly of speculative sci-fi, this fantasy/horror novel has nevertheless become a household name for fans of the dark and weird. Set in modern a day Midwestern town, the story revolves around a visiting carnival and its mysterious director, Mr. Black.
Enter into this the story’s protagonists, two 13 year old boys, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, who witness the arrival of the carnival and become immediately enthralled with it. They quickly realize that everyone who works there has been lured into Mr. Dark’s service through the promise of being able to live out their fantasies. For most people, these involve become younger, a gift he confers on several characters through his “magic” carousel.
In time, they come to realize that Mr. Dark holds these people under his sway and has a tatoo of each of them on his body, a symbol of his control. Charles Holloway, William’s father, looks into Mr. Dark’s past and realizes he can be defeated through love. It is unclear what this entails, but after the boy’s are kidnapped, he comes to the carnival and begins destroying it’s structures and Dark’s protectors by expressing laughter and joy. He and his son use the same tactic to eventually bring down Mr. Dark and bring Jim back from death, who was stuck on the carousel and rapidly aging.
Though different from most of his other works in terms of genre, this story did contain many elements which were present in his other stories. For example, the concept of the carnival and the tattooed man was the basis of “The Illustrated Man”. The nostalgic feel of the story was also to be found in his novel Dandelion Wine, and is often paired with this novel as presenting both the lighter and darker sides of childhood. And of course, the novels resolution, where good prevails through purity of heart, is to be found in many of Bradbury’s works.
Because of its focus on good versus evil, childhood, and coming of age, this story was to have a profound effect on several authors, the most notable of which is Stephen King. Citing Something Wicked as his inspiration, King attributed a debt to Bradbury for helping to write It and Dreamcatcher.
In the end, Bradbury was known for many things: originality, depth, vision and genius. But the thing that sticks with the most about him was his views on the preciousness of literature and knowledge. Basically, he expressed several times over how when something is lost, it’s lost forever. I can only assume then that he would take great comfort in knowing that he left the literary legacy that he did. Though he may no longer be with us, his works will live on and serve to inspire many generations to come.
I think this is a lesson we could all draw from. Though our time on this Earth may be short, we have the ability to leave our mark and ensure that some trace of us stays behind. So make those footprints people, write those manuscripts, and most importantly, tell the people you love how you feel. Do not leave things unsaid or undone, because someday, we will be gone…
So than you, Mr. Bradbury, for your many, many contributions. You did it right, and now you go on to join the other greats of your time. Rest In Peace.
Welcome back. I had a lot of fun with the last installment, so here’s another! Updated, expanded, and with plenty of additions. Ah, screw it! Let’s get to it.
Immortal: Back to the Starcraft universe for a sequel. Much like its predecessor, the Immortal was a vehicle for severely wounded Templars who still wanted to serve. Developed shortly after the Brood War, the Immortals replaced the aging Dragoon design and improved on it in many ways.
In terms of armaments, the Immortals boast two phased disruptor cannons which pretty much doubles their firepower. Their chassis are heavily armored and of course boast shields that can even withstand attacks from heavy artillery.
The Immortal’s one weakness is that their shields are only activated when they are hit by heavy munitions. In addition, their weapons are best for ranged attacks. This makes them somewhat vulnerable to close encounters with small arms fire and auto-cannons.
Mad Dog: Another classic mech from the Battltech universe. Much like the Mad Cat from the last installment, the Mad Dog is another omnimech. It’s configuration, which appeared to Inner Sphere forces as a bird of prey, earned it the nickname “Vulture”.
Heavily armored with a n8 and a half ton ferro-fibrous shell, the Mad Dog is still fast and maneuverable, able to run at over 85 km/h. In its standard configuration, it carries two large pulse lasers in the arms, two medium ones (typically mounted underneath) and two shoulder mounted missile launchers.
Quick, powerful and versatile, the Mad Dog is well represented in the armies of every Outer Sphere Clan. In fact, the Mad Dog and Mad Cat are so close in design that they are often fashioned for the same mold. They often serve alongside each other for mutual support in the field of battle.
Madox-01: When it comes to big, mechanized war machines, much like many cool inventions, the Japanese seem to have the market cornered. But what do you expect, they got their first and pioneered the whole concept. And this example is one of the many originals shows to popularize it.
Taken from Metal Skin Panic, the Madox-o1 was a prototype mech design built by the Japanese Self Defense Forces for use against tanks. Armed with a large caliber minigun, a chainsaw, a grappling claw, and can also carry an assortment of missiles. It is deployed by helicopters to a field of battle, but is also capable of running speedily to wherever it needs to go.
In the story, it becomes the property of a mechanic who climbs into the mech and “merges”, meaning that the machine comes to recognize him as its controller and won’t let him leave. As a result, Koji – the mechanic – is stuck with the machine and forced to defend himself when the authorities come looking for it. But in time, it is agreed that the best thing for all sides is if Koji works for the government and uses the machine for good. Everybody’s happy!
Metal Gear Ray: Since these guys are so damn good at producing mech designs, I just had to return to the Metal Gear franchise! Picking up after the first game, this next example comes from its sequel: Sons of Liberty.
After the events in the first game, the world was apparently flooded with designs for the Metal Gear Rex. As a result, Ray began as a proposed countermeasure design, an amphibious design produced by the US Marine Corps. Because of this, Ray was the first Metal Gear that was both amphibious and not specifically designed for nuclear warfare.
Originally intended to be operated by a single pilot, the final Ray design was completely unmanned. Its primary armaments consisted of two machine guns, anti-tank and anti-ship missile banks, cluster bombs and a water jet cutter. Its smaller frame and lighter weight also meant it a lot speedier and more agile than its behemoth cousin, Rex.
MSZ-007 Gundam: Speaking of anime and Japanese robots, the next examples comes from a similarly old-school show, Gundam! Known as the Mass Production type Z Gundam, this “Mobile Suit” is one of the more popular mechs from the series. And for good reason!
In addition to being able to fly on its own without having to transform into a fighter configuration, this mech also carries a beam rifle and can get into hand to hand combat with its pair of beam sabres. Just because you’re a futuristic robot suit doesn’t mean you can’t go samurai on your enemies asses!
In addition to being able to run at high speeds, its thruster packs provide a whopping 1.53 G (73900 kg) of thrust. This makes it capable of operating in air, space and on land. Its diverse weapons capabilities also mean it is able to perform ranged and hand to hand attacks. In short, its versatility makes it popular, and pretty damn cool to look at!
Robocop 2: Also known as “Robocain”, this monster appeared in the sequel to Robocop and was intended as his successor. In the midst of the police strike in the second movie, OCP intended to fully replace the police force with cyborgs. All they needed was a human brain to make the prototype work… again.
Unfortunately, due to some tampering from a rather ambitious OCP exec, the brain came from former drug kingpin and Jesus wannabee Cain. Rather than protecting and serving, he saw this as an opportunity for quasi-godhood. Heavily armed, armored, and clearly nuclear powered by the symbol on the right side of the chest plate.
And who wouldn’t feel like a god with this kind of firepower? Though somewhat cumbersome and easy to trip up, the Robocain suit had all kinds of advantages. A rotary cannon was its main article, mounted on one arm, while a shoulder mounted autocannon added some punch. While its right hand was articulated, its left was little more than a hydraulic fist. Hard to describe, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’d understand.
At the end of the movie, Murphy and Cain get into it, with Murphy being heavily over-matched. In the end, he managed to defeat him by having his partner distract him with a vial of nuke (the designer drug he invented) and then jumped on his back and ripped his brain out of the head assembly. A grissly death, but a fitting one for a criminal madman with a god complex!
Tripod Walker: I always say there is nothing like a classic, but when it comes to giant robots, this is the cat’s ass of classics! Taken from H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds, the tripod walker was the proposed design of what an alien attack machine would look like. Tall, tripedal, and using heat rays to annihilate everything in their paths, these robots served as an inspiration for countless other franchises and genres of sci-fi.
In the novel, Well’s describes his creation as follows: “Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles… Behind the main body was a huge mass of white metal like a gigantic fisherman’s basket, and puffs of green smoke squirted out from the joints of the limbs as the monster swept by me. And in an instant it was gone.”
From this basic description, movie makers and conceptual artists have through several renditions. The latest, which were featured in the Stephen Spielberg remake, were updated to look sleaker and more modern; in essence, less Steampunk-y. However, they retained the same basic design, consisting of a central “head”, three legs and a series of beam emitters mounted underneath.
As a finale, it’s back to the Robotech universe with the Zentraedi Battlepod. Built by the alien race that are the main antagonists of the show, this battlepod is essentially a mass-produced infantry mech and the mainstay of the Zentraedi forces.
Known as the Regult within their own ranks, this mech is fast, maneuverable, and highly versatile, especially when compared to heavier mechs like the Tomahawk. It lightweight and chassis-mounted thrusters ensure that it can make high jumps and operate in zero gravity.
It’s weaponry is also more sophisticated than the average human design, which includes two quadruple-barreled medium beam cannons, two single barrel light cannons, and two light pulse beam cannons mounted on the back of the head.
However, the Battlepod has a discernible weakness, which is its light armor. Although this makes the pod faster and more maneuverable, especially in space, it is not capable of withstanding direct hits from autocannons, missiles or lasers. In the end, the Battlepod’s greatest quality is it’s quantity. Later generations would be upgraded to include heavier weapons and armor, but for the duration of the First Robotech War, Zentraedi forces were stuck with this one.
Well, that was fun, again! Bring on the suggestions, I still got a few to work through. See you next time!